Tales of San Francisco: liberation and libations in the Castro, as told by activist Nick Large

The Castro neighbourhood is the epicentre of San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ scene, and its museums, history and nightlife stand testament to the creativity — and political struggles — of the gay community, as activist and drag performer Nick Large reveals.

Published 5 Nov 2020, 08:00 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 09:15 GMT
Nick Large

Activist and drag performer Nick Large moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 2010.

Photograph by Andria Lo

On the corner of 19th and Castro, my guide, Nick Large, points upwards. In the window above us is a display of Barbie and Ken dolls. Only these aren’t your average specimens. One holds a sign saying ‘Keep the Castro Queer’; ‘Dyke Pride’, says another. There are also dolls in fetish gear, ‘Impeach Trump now’ dolls, and dolls with the kind of enormous physical attributes that definitely wouldn’t come out of a Mattel box.

When Life magazine named San Francisco the ‘gay capital of the world’ in 1964, it was talking about the Castro. This is where Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, waged his election campaigns in the ’70s. For decades, it’s been the LGBTQ+ hub of America’s most gay-friendly city.

Nick, I learn as we explore the area, moved here from Los Angeles in 2010. A housing policy analyst and activist, he used to work at the Castro’s Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Store and is a trustee of its GLBT Historical Society Museum. He’s also part of the Rice Rockettes, an Asian drag troupe.

Visitors to the Castro are often struck by its louche nods: a nail salon and spa called Hand Job, the casual nudity on some streets. But Nick wants to show me his Castro — a place of refuge, community and activism. We start at Spike’s Coffees and Teas, whose wooden counter is plastered with photos of customers’ dogs. From there, past that doll-filled window, we’re off to 573 Castro Street. Today, this is the Human Rights Campaign Store, but from 1972 until his murder in 1978, it was Harvey Milk’s camera shop, Castro Camera, a key centre for the growing gay community. There’s more on Harvey around the corner at America’s first queer history museum, the GLBT Historical Society Museum. 

Nick Large details his perfect day in the Castro

I soon discover some interesting facts: in 1849, when San Francisco’s first known same-sex couple arrived, the Gold Rush city was 90% male; that drag, both female and male, was mainstream entertainment in the 19th century; and that the rainbow flag that symbolises LGBTQ+ pride was invented in the city in 1978 by artist Gilbert Baker (his eight-colour design is on display).

A server at Lookout, a nightclub where every second Thursday of the month, the Rice Rockettes perform — an Asian drag troupe.

Photograph by Andria Lo

There are lots of joyful exhibits, but the museum catalogues tragedy, too, from early-20th-century mugshots of men arrested for homosexuality to the 1980s AIDS epidemic. “We lost an entire generation from this neighbourhood,” says Nick. The famous speech that Harvey Milk recorded for release in the event of his murder plays on a loop above the case containing the bloodied suit he died in. We’re both wiping our eyes as we leave.

Back on Castro Street, we follow the Rainbow Honor Walk (think Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, only with famous LGBTQ+ citizens) past the 1920s Castro Theatre (now a cinema known for its singalong film screenings). “You’re my favourite drag queen!,” a passerby yells at Nick.

And so we get to the end of Castro Street, cross Market Street and arrive at Lookout, a nightclub where every second Thursday of the month, the Rice Rockettes perform. On the bar’s balcony, overlooking the street, Nick tells me why he’s so involved. “When you live in a city, part of what makes it special is the people who live there,” he says. “But that feeling doesn’t exist unless people contribute to it. I love this city because of all the things that are possible here that aren’t in other places. You can do whatever you want and be yourself. But people died so we have these spaces — and if you want San Francisco to be known for that freedom, you have to fight.”

Discover more Tales of San Francisco

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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